The contested origins of internal displacement



Publication Details

Orchard, P. (2016). The contested origins of internal displacement. International Journal of Refugee Law, 28 (2), 210-233.


In 1993, the United Nations (UN) recognized that internally displaced persons, people who have fled their homes due to conflict but have not crossed an international boundary, were an international problem. Francis Deng was appointed as the first Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and played a key role in creating the soft law Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which have now been widely recognized and brought into regional hard law through the African Union's Kampala Convention. Yet, why were the internally displaced not treated as an international problem earlier? Widespread internal displacement occurred during the Second World War. Further, by 1949, the problem of 'internal refugees' from the Indian Partition and the Greek Civil War was being raised within the UN. Internal refugees were not included in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as Eleanor Roosevelt stated in the General Assembly in 1949, because 'internal refugee situations ... were separate problems of a different character, in which no question of protection of the persons concerned was involved'. Using new archival research, this article argues that Roosevelt's statement - critical in demarking the definition of 'refugee' that appeared in the Convention - was actually a frame used deliberately by the US government to forestall a wider encompassing definition and an assistance mandate for the early United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This was a crucial shift, as it reified a clear division between refugees and internally displaced persons, a division which was far murkier in practice than Roosevelt's statement made it appear.

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